Understanding the Protesters

Understanding the Protesters

By Franca Ovadje

I was at one of the protest venues in Lagos on Saturday and interviewed several protesters. I aim to facilitate a meaningful dialogue between the protesters and the government. They were very passionate about the protests and explained what will make them stop the march. The reasons for the demonstration are well known, and even children can tell you what 5for5 stands for. It seems that the government needs to understand the Protesters if they are to come up with a lasting solution to this crisis.

Two things emerged from the interviews: one was that the Nigeria that the protesters know and have experienced is different from what the older generation experienced.Significant experiences shape a generation in early adulthood. These experiences result in a generational identity with a distinctive set of values, beliefs, expectations and behaviours (Egri&Ralson, 2004).

I grew up in Benin in the 1970s, a time when ECN would advertise in The Observer newspaper the day and time of day they would not provide electricity and would apologize for it. I attended public schools. In fact, in my day, most of those who went abroad for A-levels did not make it to university in Nigeria. We received a bursary from the government during our university days, and during the long vacation, the Bendel State government employed us. None of my friends was jobless after graduation.

The protesters are Millennials and Gen Z. They grew up under a democratically elected government; they experienced the telecommunications and Internet revolution. They have smartphones; they comment on international issues on social media with their friends. Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, YouTube, and others became available in their formative years. The educational system had collapsed when they went to school. A number of the protesters went to private schools and did not feel that they have received anything from Nigeria. Without leaving the country, they are fully aware of what is happening in the world, how other countries practise democracy.

One of the protesters said: “Since I was born, I have never heard anything good about Nigeria. Never! What we have been hearing is: ‘Nigeria used to be good’; ‘Nigeria was good back in the day.’ But we never experienced it. So, we grew up in a system that was broken and was deteriorating by the day. The roads, electricity, water, security only became worse. The only difference is that it became more sophisticated and people have learnt to live independent of government, especially the youth.”

While the older generations still see authority figures as people that should be respected, even revered, the Millennials and Gen Z do not see the President nor any elected official as a father figure but as servants of the people.They are the ‘why’ generation. They have been asking their parents and teachers ‘why’ since they were born. A number of them studied abroad and have come back and cannot understand why democracy is the way it is in Nigeria. They are confident and ready to take on the world if needed.

Perhaps more importantly, they do not see hope for themselves and their children in Nigeria today. One interviewee said more than half of his colleagues have run to Canada in the past year. He has chosen to stay, and he intends to fix the system. He cannot contemplate having children and bringing them up in Nigeria today. A few of the interviewees went on to say that they are ready to give their lives for this struggle. According to one of them: “I grew up in this country; I do not want my children to grow up in a country like this. I will give my life.”

The second thing that emerged from the interview is this: there is no trust between the government and the protesters. This lack of trust is the reason the protests have continued. Trust is the disposition to be vulnerable to the actions of another based on the expectation of the intentions and behaviour of that other. The protesters do not see any reason to make themselves vulnerable to the government.

My study on trust in the boss-subordinate relationship suggests that behaviours lead to trust; the manager’s trusting behaviours (his or her actions) leads to subordinate confidence in the manager.The Protesters have been asking for an end to SARS for days. The government announced the disbandment of SARS. Yet the protests continue. One would think that the announcement would be enough to bring the #ENDSARS protest to an end. Instead, it has become a movement with more than 5for5 demands!

We asked the protesters what must happen to stop the #ENDSARS or #ENDSWAT protest. Several protesters responded: “We are no fools. If I were 5 or 10 years old, you could tell me this, and I will believe you. When you say you will look into it, you are managing the situation, not solving it.” He added: “We listed the names of officers who committed crimes. When we see that government is prosecuting them; that they are in Court (I will know because I am a lawyer), then we can stop the #ENDSWAT protest. Promises made in the past were not kept. We want concrete actions, actual reform not just saying Ok, we have disbanded SARS. When will the government stop sending dogs and police to intimidate us?”

Trust is broken obviously. If the government is to build trust, we must see that they are listening, listen to understand. There is much pain among the protesters. One of them told me she has nightmares because SARS shot her friend in her presence on their way to a party one Saturday night. Citizens must see the government as fair. If their children suffered this much, what would they do? Finally, keeping commitments, keeping promises is critical to building trust. Such faithfulness will require a rethink of governance. They must keep promises. The Protesters are holding the government to account. Accountability is the new normal; the era of ‘promise them anything to keep them quiet’ is over.

One protester summed up the protest: “We are not asking for electricity, we are not asking for education, we just want to be alive. Let us live so that when we are in office, we can change this country. We don’t want to be out in the rain protesting. People have lost loved ones, and there is no form of accountability. Unfortunately, it has to come to this just for something as basic as the right to life!”

Professor Franca Ovadje is the Founder of Danne Institute of Research.